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DispatchesWar Torn title

Afghanistan Unveiled

Broadcast: Thursday 17 May 2007 09:00 PM

Journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy returns to Afghanistan to find out how life has changed for women in the five years since the invasion by America and its allies and to investigate whether women have been "liberated" as President Bush has claimed.

Afghanistan Unveiled

Five years ago, Dispatches revealed the plight of women living under the Taliban in Afghanistan. 'Beneath the Veil' uncovered evidence of women being denied employment, education and any kind of freedom - imprisoned in their own homes.

In this film, journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy returns to Afghanistan to find out how life has changed for women in the five years since the invasion by America and its allies and to investigate whether women have been 'liberated' as President Bush has claimed.

Her journey takes her from the bustling city of Kabul - one vast building site full of shopping malls and warlord palaces - to Herat on the Iranian border, where suicide rates for women are shockingly high, and on to the remote rural areas in the north where Afghan life is at its most basic.

Kabul has become the showcase for women's rights in Afghanistan - its burgeoning beauty businesses and shops touted as evidence of their freedom. But Sharmeen discovers that life has only changed for a privileged few. Just streets away from one shopping mall she finds homeless women wearing burqas forced to beg, steal and sell their bodies to feed their children.

Sharmeen is taken by one woman to her 'home' - a bombed-out block of flats in Western Kabul, an area rarely visited by Western journalists. Here she explains how her husband was killed in the invasion forcing her to beg to ensure her daughters' survival. This woman is just one of an estimated two million widows in a country where women are dependent on men.

To begin to get an idea about what women like her face everyday, Sharmeen wears a full burqa and a secret camera and joins her on the streets. She records the reactions of the men passing by and how women are still made to feel like second-class citizens.

Sharmeen travels to a burns unit at a hospital in the Western province of Herat to investigate the growing number of self-immolation cases. She meets patients and doctors and discovers that for many women facing domestic violence, rape and forced marriages suicide is the only means of escape. But for survivors, the stigma attached to suicide mean many of them claim the burns were an accident as their families seek to conceal it.

In one moving interview, a girl of 12 tells Sharmeen how she was sold by her opiate-addicted father to her future husband at the age of seven - she burnt herself from the waist down when she became old enough to know what her fate was.

In Taloqan, in the far north, Sharmeen visits a maternity ward at a hospital to find out why the country has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world. She meets female doctors who explain that women need their male guardian's written permission to go to hospital - which is often difficult to obtain and finds that many women have little or no access to basic prenatal and postnatal care so childbirth can often signal a death sentence for a mother and her baby. Promised western aid to modernise the hospital has never materialised.

Sharmeen then travels to the remote province of Takhar to visit a girl's school which appears to offer some hope. Whereas under the Taliban the girls had to be taught in secret, the headmistress can now hold classes in the open and many of the girls are unveiled. However Sharmeen soon discovers that their enthusiasm for education is not shared by their fathers and their employment prospects are bleak. Throughout her journey, Sharmeen finds little evidence of Western aid making a difference to the lives of women. The streets of Kabul are full of aid workers in flash 'four by fours', but the lives of ordinary people have hardly changed.

Sharmeen concludes that the liberation of Afghan women is mostly theoretical: it was naïve to think that the country could be transformed quickly, when the oppression of women was the consequence of centuries of tribal and cultural practice - not the sole invention of the Taliban. The West should be asking hard questions about where all the millions of aid money has gone, with so little to show.

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